The Realistic Joneses

_DSC7352ABy Jocelyn McMahon

IN THE PERFECTLY TRIMMED yard outside a lovely blue house the Joneses, Bob and Jennifer, are enjoying a nice quiet evening in their lawn chairs, talking about, well, not talking. The couple takes pleasure in their usual banter until they hear a crash from the garbage can. Assuming it is a raccoon, or something of the sort, they go to investigate, but instead find a young couple standing there. They are the new neighbors, the OTHER Joneses, John and Pony, who have just moved into the identical blue house next door. How American.

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses is a bold but strong choice for Actors’ Theatre first ever expanded season. Directed by Gerry Gerringer, the play, which ran on Broadway in 2014, has an unusual quirky humor that grabs the audience’s attention immediately and maintains a certain uncomfortable, but engaged dynamic, that is often felt with the company’s annual 8 Tens @ 8 Festival.

The two couples, the Joneses, who we initially assume to be classic suburban character sketches, quickly turn into beasts of their own kind. We are left thinking who the heck are these people? Immediately their lives begin to intertwine as they quickly come to know each other, perhaps a little more than they would have liked. Soon all hell breaks loose as their relationships entangle and the characters discover they cannot face—or runaway from—their realities.

We see the chemistry between Jennifer (Tara McMilin) and John (Drew Crocker) clearly established in the second scene where they meet by chance at the grocery store and experience a bit of mild flirtation. Over the course of the show their connection grows, and eventually their relationship becomes more of a parental dynamic. They find solace in one another. Just as Jennifer is always there for her sick husband who seems indifferent and emotionally unavailable, John struggles to convey his concerns and emotions to his wife who doesn’t really want to take any responsibility for her husband.

Meanwhile Pony (Sarah Marsh) is fighting the feeling that she hasn’t achieved anything in life, and, despite moving house, is still unhappy. Bob (Avondina Wills) struggles to maintain his dignity and sense of being a man while being unable to work, and experiencing mental and physical impairments. The two, not really having anyone else to turn to, soon become companions, or possibly more.

The stage set, two identical blue houses with back-doors connected by mirroring patios lined with detailed props, opens a portal into the lives of the two pairs of Joneses. And the tech, although minimal, is solid. (I would have considered some background music between transitions, or before or after curtain call.) The impeccable lighting cues drive one my favorite scenes; the night Bob is caught in a motion-activated floodlight in John and Pony’s backyard. Flip flopping between complete dark and light, Crocker and Wills convey the absurd humor of the of the moment picking perfect tableaus for the lights to come up on.

The acting choices, on the other hand, are a bit of a mixed bag. Wills’ Bob is sassy and makes it clear what he really means: cut the BS. Wills’ frank, one-word answers are great, and lend relief from the suburban babble written into the dialogue. His deadpan punchlines are some of the most humorous of the show, and later when we see strains of his vulnerability sneak in under his tough guy persona his character fights to maintain, it is hard not to be sympathetic.

Tara McMilin beautifully conveys the concern and sincerity, as well as the frustration and pain that her character Jennifer is experiencing. By far the strongest point in the show comes near the end, in Jennifer’s monologue directed at her husband, when she finally breaks under the pressure of being underappreciated.

Drew Crocker’s portrayal of John is initially awkward and uncomfortable, perhaps intentionally, but as the show progresses he sheds his awkward persona and we come to understand his underlying character and see a different side of him, especially with the more intimate scenes with Jennifer.

The performance by Sarah Marsh as Pony, unfortunately, offers no subtlety, which, even for a comedy, is at times necessary. Her pacing is so fast that moments are missed and there is no chance for a beat to fall in order for the punchline to sustain meaning. It would have been nice to be able to enjoy her key monologue in Act Two, which really has much potential.

Even though the comedic elements dominate the show, I would have liked to see more moments of sincerity, especially when dealing with subject matters such as mortality and terminal illness (you’ll have to see the show to understand what I’m talking about). The play overall conveys an accurate look at the younger suburban couple looking for solace in the seemingly “wiser” older couple, who, it turns out, don’t know what they’re doing either. Both pairs of Joneses love each other unconditionally, though they may not always like each other. Or as Pony accurately explains: “It’s not easy. Sometimes I can only handle half a person.”

Though The Realistic Joneses is mostly entertaining, I was left wondering what we the audience are supposed to take away? Is it a snapshot of the struggles and emotional rewards of love and maintaining a long-term relationship? A comment on the distance between us despite living so compactly? An internal glimpse into the seemingly perfect picturesque suburban America? The silliness and absurdity, which is great at certain moments, gets carried away and leaves the depth of the show to be swept under the rug.

Photo: Jana Marcus

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blackbird

By Philip Pearce

TEN YEARS BEFORE #MeToo exploded into the headlines, Scots playwright David Harrower won an Olivier best new play award with a script called Blackbird about an enraged sexual abuse victim who seeks out and confronts her long-lost abuser. PacRep has just opened a powerful new version of the play. The direction and acting are top flight. The text sometimes makes you want to wince but you can’t stop watching every dark moment of the story.

BlackbirdA girl named Una storms into the workplace of a man named Ray. Fifteen years ago he was arrested, tried and imprisoned for a consensual sexual relationship he had with her, when he was forty and she was twelve. Released from jail, he’s changed his name to Peter, moved to a different town, taken on an identity carefully crafted to avoid the traits of chronic sex abusers outlined in pop psychology books. She tracks him down from a magazine ad for his medical supply firm. They meet and do battle in the soulless and littered locker-room canteen of Ray’s workplace. She wants him to fill in gaps in what she knows and doesn’t know about what happened fifteen years ago. He wants at all cost to protect his shaky new identity and lifestyle.

We seem to be on the verge of a highly charged feminist attack against a blundering middle-brow abuser. But “seem“ is the operative word throughout Blackbird. The play’s power comes from the way this couple’s unfettered explosions of rage and disillusionment are offered with a clinical detachment that lets them explode without reaction or comment. Harrower refuses to launch attacks, choose sides, hand out value judgments or score moral points against  these two flawed humans. Their story is laid out with a cool balance that makes terms like “victim” and “abuser” meaningless.

Kenneth Kelleher directs like a conductor at work on a symphony. The thunderclouds of feeling burst with full-throated force, but the mood and volume shift and soften as Michael Ray Wisely’s anxious Ray and Tavi Carpenter’s angry Una begin to reflect more deeply on the pain and humiliation each has visited on the other. She shows up, all controlled rage, a desperate, determined and overdressed woman ready for a carefully planned attack on someone who has ruined her life but whom she still can‘t help finding attractive. His responses grow more and more like the struggles of a caged animal as he tries to play the successful department head of a prestigious business with an embarrassingly filthy staff canteen.

As they battle, it’s clear when, where and how their past sexual encounters took place. And it’s clear how their pathetic affair has left ugly, unhealed gashes in both of them. But areas of uncertainty hover above every new revelation. Ray and Una probe, accuse, justify their furtive couplings in an out-of-town boarding house. But who is telling the whole truth and when are they not telling it? Each needs to understand areas of mystery left unsolved when Ray was snatched away by the police and Una’s adolescent body was probed and pumped and analyzed as a piece of forensic sexual evidence. The clinical detail is searing, explicit and ugly.

The action eventually slows to a point where the couple seem to have exhausted the depths and shoals of their dark partnership. They seem ready to move on. In a surprise burst of black comedy they up-end all the trash cans and litter the sordid locker room with uncollected garbage in a kind of crazy death dance offered to a past that seems to have finally lost its power to destroy them. But “seems” is still the operative term. A third significant character, played by the gifted Colette Gsell, enters and things start to happen that suggest the possibility that everything that has happened so far may not really have  been all that therapeutic. We may have been watching two wounded people relive the same ingrained attitudes and obsessions that caused their tragedy in the first place. Watch that last quarter of an hour and you look back and wonder.

Blackbird is the kind of show that raises questions and sometimes leaves the answers to you. I am as keen as anyone else on recreational theater. But if, even just occasionally, you buy a play ticket in the hope of something more than just a night of fun in Carmel, I doubt you’ll soon see anything that can match the raw power and realism of this production.

It continues at the Circle Theatre through May 27th.